EletiofeSale's Steve Diamond says title rivals Exeter are best...

Sale’s Steve Diamond says title rivals Exeter are best side in the competition

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  • First plays third in what could be rehearsal for Premiership final
  • Rob Baxter says Exeter will be unfazed by favourites tag

Sale got off to a disappointing start when the Premiership returned after shutdown, losing at Harlequins in a tight encounter.






Sale got off to a disappointing start when the Premiership returned after shutdown, losing at Harlequins in a tight encounter.
Photograph: Javier García/BPI/Shutterstock

Saracens’ relegation has long since been confirmed but the race to replace them as champions comes into sharper focus this weekend. Bristol, with their huge bank balance, have designs on taking their place as England’s leading light in the long term and sit second in the table, but Exeter’s trip to Sale on Friday pits first against third in what many believe will be a dress rehearsal for October’s Premiership final.

Exeter, still sore after missing out on two titles during the period of Saracens’ financial foul play, are the favourites this season, and wasted little time finding their groove against Leicester last Saturday. Sale, meanwhile, failed to get out of first gear in defeat by Harlequins despite the hype surrounding their high-profile acquisition of Manu Tuilagi to add to their burgeoning Springbok might.

Their director of rugby, Steve Diamond, made his views on scrummaging clear this week and he was equally unequivocal over the need for his side to return to winning ways against Exeter. This weekend marks the start of a nine-day period when all clubs play three matches and just as the winning habit can be quickly established so, too, can sides fall away before the month is up.

Sale and Exeter have met three times this season – Exeter coming out on top in both European matches while Sale squeezed to a 22-19 Premiership victory in January. No doubt aware that the expectation on Exeter has been heightened in the wake of Saracens’ demise, Diamond was quick to anoint Friday’s opposition as “definitely the best side in the competition”. The onus, then, is on Sale to click into gear and Diamond, who makes one change with Sam James coming in at outside-centre, believes the new breakdown interpretations may work in his side’s favour.

“Exeter have probably done enough already to guarantee themselves a home semi,” he said. “What we have got to do is put in one of our performances we can do, and we can pull out of the bag, and challenge Exeter. We need to win the game to stay in contention.

“Their ability five metres out, with that three versus one is a difficult thing to stop. If anything, this interpretation could help sides defend that. If you can isolate the ball-carrier, if the other two people are then blocking the ball being played or blocking the defender getting his hands on and lifting it, then it could assist defending sides doing that.”

If Diamond was attempting to turn up the pressure on Exeter however, their director of rugby, Rob Baxter, gave his claim short shrift. Baxter, who is still without Jack Nowell but is able to hand a start to Alex Cuthbert for the first time since November, said: “I hope he’s right. You’ve got to trust Steve – he knows what he’s talking about. We should all be agreeing with him.

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“I don’t think we’ve had a year for five or six where teams haven’t been coming after us. We’ve been in enough semi-finals and finals to want the pressure, want to be favoured semi-finalists and finalists. We work hard to be the favourites and have to learn to enjoy it.”

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